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After coming back from knee surgery, Terps safety Denzel Conyers contributes wherever he can

Maryland safety Denzel Conyers is thankful for getting a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA that allowed him to return this season as a redshirt senior.
Maryland safety Denzel Conyers is thankful for getting a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA that allowed him to return this season as a redshirt senior. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Since returning from a knee injury that sidelined him most of last season, Maryland safety Denzel Conyers has almost started over as his career winds down.

A starter for the first three games in 2016 before suffering a torn ACL in a double-overtime road win at Central Florida, Conyers is now backing up Darnell Savage Jr. and Josh Woods (McDonogh).

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Since getting his first action of the season in a win last month over Towson, then missing a couple of games when the knee flared up, Conyers is playing mostly on special teams.

Given the alternative — having his college career end with a knee injury — Conyers is thankful for getting a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA that allowed him to return this season as a redshirt senior.

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"I'm feeling good. Every week I feel a little faster," Conyers said Wednesday. "I'm feeling stronger, breaking on passes in practice and stuff. Get those game speed reps and you just get more comfortable."

Going into Saturday's homecoming game against Indiana, Conyers is hoping to get more snaps on defense, though he understands Savage and Woods have played well for much of the season.

After losing his top two quarterbacks, Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell concedes that his second season has been harder than his first.

"I feel as a competitor, whatever opportunity you get, you take it with a chip on your shoulder," said Conyers, who had a career-high eight tackles against the Hoosiers two years ago. "Darnell and Josh are playing very well at the safety position.

"When I am on the field, I just make it like a personal thing. Like, I'm going to play harder than my competitors at my position and my competitors on the other team. It's nothing personal."

Midway through training camp, Conyers appeared to be nearly at full strength when he came in fast and hit junior receiver Michael Cornwell (McDonogh) from behind, jarring the ball loose.

But there were other days when the knee was sore and stiff, and Conyers was forced to sit out. He missed the season opener at Texas, and then played toward the end of a 63-17 blowout of Towson.

Asked what it was like to be back on the field for first time in nearly a year, Conyers said: "It was a good feeling, obviously. For one, we were winning, winning big. Just hearing my teammates yelling, 'C'mon 'Zel, let's go, let's go.' I've been playing this game for a long time. It was good hearing the fans go crazy."

After the game, Conyers said it was more emotional.

"I'm back, I've been fighting for a while, to get back to this point," he said. "When I went on the field, it was like business to me, continue to build my resume for myself and the next level."

Conyers, who tore his ACL in his left knee in high school, said coming back this time was easier.

"I wasn't 17 years old. I knew that the world throws adverse moments at you. You decide whether you want to get stronger from it or you just shrivel up and feel sorry for yourself," he said. "It definitely helped me mentally and physically. I knew the steps I had to take. Mentally, I knew this wasn't the end."

Conyers said he's never second-guessed himself about trying to come back too soon.

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"I just took it as like a learning [experience]," he said. "Take a step back and think about what might have been bothering you, getting treatment, talk to the trainers, get whatever therapy I needed to strengthen that."

The two games he sat out after Towson — including a home loss to Central Florida — were part of the process.

"It definitely hasn't been a straightforward recovery," Conyers said. "Throughout camp, some days I was higher than others. Just attacking and continuing to attack in my recovery process.

"I know I have to put in extra time compared to like a freshman. He's got young legs. I'm not 18 anymore. I've got to do a little bit more, but I feel like I'm doing better, running faster, making more plays."

Conyers said a breakthrough came recently when he fell on his right leg in practice.

"I went up for a ball and I came down on my right leg. It was like gratifying knowing that I did it without reacting," he said. "The more I was exposed to things, the better I felt. The more I felt like me every day."

Said second-year Maryland coach DJ Durkin: "He's looking more like himself at practice. He wishes he was further along a month ago. It's just the way it goes. We're definitely being smart about that. His approach, obviously he's an older guy, a sixth-year senior. It's a good example for younger guys."

Conyers said the experience he gained before the injury has helped him, too.

"A lot of it is me being an older guy, playing a lot of football. The experience helps me make a lot of decisions when I'm on the field," he said. "I've learned that a lot of times, it's more the mental aspects of the game that makes the plays than physically because everybody is physically gifted and talented."

Durkin is happy to have Conyers back in whatever role he can play.

"Denzel's done a great job with that," Durkin said on a teleconference with local reporters Thursday. "He's helped us on special teams. I think you'll see him play little by little, more and more at safety as well. He's getting closer and closer to being 100 percent."

Said Conyers: "I walk around, I pride myself on being the best, whether I am at safety or I'm kickoffs, whatever it is, I pride myself on winning every rep. My attempt is to win, that's my standard. That helps me get on tape that I'm getting healthy and playing faster, so when my opportunity is called, I'll be ready."

Maryland and Indiana, which face each other Saturday in College Park, are among several Big Ten football teams going through a rebuilding process.

Indiana (3-4, 0-4 Big Ten) at Maryland (3-4, 1-3)

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Where: Maryland Stadium, College Park

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM. Also available on Sirius XM (Ch. 83) and TuneIn Radio

Series: Indiana leads 4-1

Betting line: Indiana by 4 1/2

What's at stake: Both teams are desperate for a win. The Terps, after a 3-1 start, have lost three straight, including blowout road defeats at then-No. 10 Ohio State and last week at then-No. 5 Wisconsin. The Hoosiers have played probably a more difficult schedule, having faced the top four teams in the Big Ten East, and are coming off close losses to Michigan (27-20 in overtime) and at Michigan State (17-9). The winning team will certainly help its bowl chances, particularly the Hoosiers, whose back end of the schedule includes Big Ten bottom-feeders Illinois and Rutgers plus Purdue.

Key matchup: The Terps will face another efficient quarterback in Indiana freshman Peyton Ramsey, who since taking over for senior Richard Lagow has steadily improved, completing 22 of 34 passes for 158 yards against the Spartans in his first road start. Maryland, which has just one sack in its past five games, will have to put pressure on Ramsey, especially in third-and-long situations.

Player to watch: DJ Moore caught 12 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns in Maryland's last home game, two weeks ago against Northwestern. Last week at Wisconsin, Moore caught just three passes for 44 yards, with 38 coming on one play. For the Terps to have any chance to win, sophomore quarterback Max Bortenschlager has to get the ball to the Big Ten's leading receiver.

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